May 16, 2021

David Cameron Berated by His Own Party Over E.U.

Defying orders from the government, legislator after legislator from Mr. Cameron’s Conservatives rose in Parliament to fulminate against his European policy, saying he had done nothing to stop the union from siphoning money, sovereignty and authority from Britain.

At issue was a motion calling for a referendum on whether Britain should withdraw from or renegotiate its relationship with the European Union. The government opposed the motion, saying that it had to devote attention to sorting out its own economic crisis right now and that, in any case, leaving the European Union was not a reasonable option.

Throughout the day, Mr. Cameron’s aides telephoned Conservative members who oppose membership in the union, the so-called Euroskeptics, warning that the party would look unkindly on any signs of disloyalty. But dozens of angry members turned out for the debate anyway.

David Nuttall, the Conservative member of Parliament who introduced the measure, gave voice to widespread public concern that the European Union was running amok, sucking power and money from Britain and drowning British business in regulations and bureaucracy.

Mr. Nuttall said it was as if Britain had boarded a train that had suddenly begun “careering off at high speed,” even while adding on new cars. “You are locked in and have no way of getting off,” he told the House of Commons. “Worse still, the longer you are on the train the more the fare goes up, but there is nothing you can do about it.”

After a debate that lasted late into the evening, the motion was rejected on a vote of 483 to 111. The leaders of all three parties — the Conservatives; the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the Conservative-led coalition government; and the Labour opposition — had told their backbenchers to vote against the measure, giving no chance of its passing. But the exercise exposed a potentially lethal schism within Conservative ranks.

Late in the afternoon, Adam Holloway, a Conservative member of Parliament, said he was resigning from his post as an aide to the minister for Europe, David Lidington, because he had opposed the government’s stance on the referendum measure. “I’m really staggered that loyal people like me have actually been put in this position,” he said. “If Britain’s future as an independent country is not a proper matter for a referendum, then I have absolutely no idea what is.”

Mr. Cameron’s government, struggling to pull Britain out of its financial crisis with little result so far, has walked a precarious line since taking power last year. To mollify the party’s right wing and a generally Europe-averse public, the government has taken a Euroskeptic line, criticizing the union’s bureaucracy and waste and speaking again and again of “British sovereignty” and “British values.”

Yet despite having retained its own currency, Britain has remained very much a part of the union, with an economy inextricably tied to it, and has been integral to recent negotiations about the euro zone crisis. The dispute with Mr. Sarkozy at the summit meeting over the weekend came as the French leader accused Mr. Cameron of lecturing and disparaging members of the euro zone.

“You have lost a good opportunity to shut up,” Mr. Sarkozy told Mr. Cameron, according to British newspaper accounts. “We are sick of you criticizing us and telling us what to do. You say you hate the euro, and now you want to interfere in our meetings.”

Speaking on Monday, William Hague, the foreign secretary, said the government had extracted important concessions from Europe, including a provision absolving Britain of liability for future euro zone bailouts and an agreement that non-euro countries would have a say in a final bailout package later this week.

The government has also promised to hold a referendum on any new European treaty that would transfer sovereign powers from Britain to the union, Mr. Hague pointed out.

“I believe this proposal to be the wrong one at the wrong time,” he told Parliament, speaking of the measure at hand.

Internal battles have long divided Britain’s fractious Conservative Party. Sometimes the party has kept them private; other times it has been unable to discipline its ranks. Monday’s rebellion, wrote Tom Newton Dunn in Rupert Murdoch’s influential Sun tabloid, exposes Mr. Cameron “as a weak incompetent who has failed to change his suicidal party one iota in 15 years.”

He added: “Much of this is his own fault. He let the genie out of the bottle by exploiting heartfelt Euroskepticism among many well-meaning Tories when it suited him.”

Indeed, in an editorial in The Evening Standard on Monday, Mr. Cameron burnished his anti-Europe credentials, saying he was “driven as mad by the bureaucracy” as everyone else.

“Of course I share people’s frustrations about how the E.U. works,” Mr. Cameron wrote. But, he added, “We’re in the middle of dealing with a crisis in the euro zone — a crisis that if left to escalate would have a major impact on our economy. If you’re putting out the flames on a burning building you need to focus on the job, rather than give up and start a whole new project. You deal with the emergency at hand. That’s what we need to do today.”

However, George Eustice, a Conservative member of Parliament, said the government had not in fact been dealing effectively with the emergency.

“What’s led to this current problem is a sense that the government doesn’t have any serious intention of sorting the European Union out,” he said.

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